Souls on Ice
The title initially misleading though not at all inaccurate, writer-producer Gabe Polsky’s directorial documentary first feature Red Army has gathered festival strength at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York as well as newer DOC NYC, and good Oscar buzz indicated by inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s recurring “The Contenders.” Members of the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s USSR world-beater ice hockey team had to be in the army, which could thus conscript promising youngsters, while staff and regimen were dictated top-down by the Ministry of Defense. Athletic achievement furnished propaganda for, and a model in miniature of, the socialist-communist system in its emphasis on the group and suppression of the individual.
Brezhnev-Gorbachev glasnost and perestroika effectively ending Stalin-era leadership, Russia’s players left in droves, over five hundred of them drafted by the Canadian-American National Hockey League by 1989. They came not as defectors now but lured by dollars dangled by private Western clubs, even if ninety percent and more of their salaries was earmarked back to the Kremlin.
Thus the eighty-five screen minutes can contrast the two systems, of sport and of cultural mindset. Game clips are exciting and illustrate East-West differences of style and ways of thinking, but the real though subsurface subject is the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the forging of present-day Russia (still using clips from the past) and its relationship with democracies.
In the process, ex-Yale hockey player Polsky puts a human face on the Russian people and what they suffered on top of the privations of the Second World War. He had not at first conceived that, of the six longtime players pictured in their baby-faced boys of summer salad days as well as a fleshier now, elder statesman captain (and Putin’s Minister of Sport) Viachaslav Fetisov would be the spinal cord and guide for the film.
Following an opening President Reagan pep talk about defeating “Them” in the rink and in the war of words -- early “hearts and minds” stuff -- “Slava’s” manly basso brushes off the director’s boyish voice to talk on his cell phone. But the formidable -- 6’1”, 205 lbs. back in the day -- much-decorated athlete and now politician grows in stature, reveals a dry sense of humor, speaks his mind. An Order of Lenin hero in the machine that boasted sports success as indicative of national superiority, he eventually bucked the apparatchiks of that system.
Along with teammates, he adored coach Anatoli Tarasov and detested the “mean vindictive” Politburo-appointed successor Viktor Tikhonov. Reviled, handcuffed, hauled in and beaten for non-compliance and then offered various sops, Slava stands his ground to become the first Soviet player granted a visa to sign with a North American team, not to mention permission to keep a large portion of his pay.
Over here, however, success came slowly and at a different cost. He and wife Lada were ostracized as “Commies.” He and compatriots who followed were criticized as taking jobs away from native-borns, and their graceful puck-passing group talents went squandered in the individualistic, chaotic, scoring- and money-obsessed violence of Slap Shot “enforcers.”
It was Detroit’s Scotty Bowman who recognized the Russian beauty of fluid creativity, reunited Slava with his available companions, and gave them the free rein that captured back-to-back four-games-to-none Red Wings Stanley Cup championships, Motor City’s first in forty-one years.
Relaxed even with his “twenty hours a day” work schedule overseeing new practice facilities for developing young talent back home, Slava laments the loss today of patriotic pride and self-sacrifice. But he and his family were never tempted to remain abroad.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG" for thematic material and language.)